After a year in Paris, Ethan has some final ruminations and tips about performing stand up comedy abroad.
In my final update from currently sunny Paris, I have decided to write up as many hints, tips, and aids to help the wandering comedian in their attempts to perform stand-up in English to people to whom English is a second language, meaning anybody who can’t understand this incredibly long sentence (I only speak about Parisians, but I assume these ideas are transferable, because all foreigners are the same).
As it’s a sunny day, I’ve also decided to sit in my garden to write this. It was a relaxing experience earlier, however my neighbour to my left has started using his hedge strimmer, covering me with grass, and my neighbour to my right keeps asking me to run back and forth, throwing his footballs back over the fence like I’m an old man and he’s asking for it. Still, at least it’s better than boiling myself to death indoors – a slow hay fever death is better than a slow heat death, ain’t I right, Universe?
French Freedom of Speech
Since being here, I’ve seen lots of stand-up, performed numerous times and have read enough Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard enchaîné to know the lack of censorship and Twitter outcry that covers comedy in France inside and out. In fact, watching the whole Count Dankula (the worst crime he committed was having me type that terrible pun) Hitler Dog scandal from this side of La Manche, where Dieudonné still stands, really highlighted the differences in taste, acceptability and levels of outrage allowed in each country before the police get involved.
But, if you come here expecting your new ten minutes on “LGBTQIAH+ people should be shot until they’re straight” to bring the roof down, it’ll only bring the roof down on your head: the police may not get involved a lot, but audiences aren’t as different here to those in the UK as far as social issues, taste and hate speech are concerned; while Redskins is a popular brand of hoodie here, saying redskins in French (peaux rouges) is going to get you into trouble as it’s considered a slur. The biggest difference isn’t politically correct language, but language itself: they just prefer to speak French.
This brings me to tip number one – the Biggest Tip. My Huge Tip. Just the tip.
This is something useful for everyone who performs stand-up anyway, but in a non-anglophone country you have to slow down even further. If you speak at your normal rate, they’ll only pick up some words and not the meaning of the full sentence. If you speak too slowly, they’ll think you’re mocking them. If you keep asking them if they can understand you, they’ll get annoyed. So, the best thing to do is make sure you’re going at a pace that feels too slow but isn’t too slow.
Trouble I ran into, and saw others run into too, was word play – they might get it, but don’t think the joke’s unfunny if they don’t; it’s the English level that sometimes stops them getting the joke. That doesn’t mean you should excuse every bombing because they ‘didn’t understand your art or your language’. It just means puns, and complicated vocabulary, aren’t safe bets. Just talk about dicks.
Forget What You Know
Another problem that I’ve seen lots of performers, even highly paid professionals, run into is that they assume their country’s news, usually the UK and the US comedians suffer from this, is news everywhere. It’s not; most French people I’ve met think Brexit happened the day of the referendum and ask me how hard the visa application forms are. So, forget what you know, and focus on what the audience knows. If they don’t know about something, teach them or cut the bit out of your set – otherwise they’re going to be just as confused as they’d be if you said “she sells sea shells on the sea shore” five times quickly. And not as amused.
A good way to understand their lack of UK or US knowledge is this: think of ten French news stories you’ve read about this year. If you can’t get to ten, then you’ll know why they don’t know about your country’s topical talking points. Plus they just really don’t care: in France, Paris is the city, and the rest of the world is Province.
There Are More Of Them Than There Are Of You
And one last thing, because this seems to irritate a lot of French audience members I speak to after gigs: don’t spend the entire show asking, ‘are there any English/Americans/Irish in?’ and then doing jokes to the one or two audience members who fit that questioning. There are more French people in Paris than there are British, Americans or nearly every other ethnic background, and they don’t want to sit there, feeling ignored, so you can get your Brexit material out of the way to that one girl in the second row who isn’t laughing anymore because she feels awkward now you’ve picked on her alone. Trump jokes are universal, though: nobody likes him.
Definitely do not find out who your people are and then do jokes to them about how different the French are – the French won’t like that. They also won’t like your brand-new pun about Banjo/Bonjour that you thought was hilarious on the bus – they’ve heard it before. The French language is brand-new to you, not to them! Well, not to all of them. Children aren’t usually in underground comedy clubs, though – this isn’t the insert British topical reference that I am unaware of, having lived in France for a year.
And finally, don’t take all my rules to heart – I’m not going to be in Paris long enough to enforce any of this shit, as it’s my last month here. I’d like to say a few words to end my time writing these articles, but the laptop needs charging. Bye, bye.
Ethan is a Revue member who has just come back from a year in France, I don’t know if you can tell. All words and opinions from this article belong to him and may not be shared with anyone, even your closest friends. If you really want to know more about him, he’s on twitter (@theejdavies).